Cooking's a fascinating business — there's a lot of trial, but surprisingly little error. The trick is to think with your tongue

Terry Pratchett, in his futuristic adventure “Strata”, introduces us to the ‘Dumbwaiter', a wondrous machine which can produce the most nutritious and/or tasty victuals, completely in tune with the client's metabolism, upbringing and cultural conditioning. With that one gadget, that single leap of imagination, he had me hook, line and sinker, his biggest fan. I spent many an idle day contemplating the existence of such a contrivance, hoping someone will invent it, secretly praying for a short circuit in an inter-dimensional portal, which would dump one in my backyard. Then one morning, as I wandered about my home, letting my gut and nose lead me where they will, I found it! Pratchett, that cheeky gent, had hidden it in plain sight all long. My kitchen is my dumbwaiter!

In those initial minutes after this epiphany, my mind was dredging recipes by the dozen, all at once. Like masterpieces waiting for the master's hand, I thought. I could make anything, I thought. Nifty little koftas with semolina, curries so complex you couldn't guess what's in it, triple decker sundae, rogan josh… biryani or boiled lobster, if I wanted to. I spent two hours making runny dal and starchy rice. One of the best meals ever.

When it comes to food, there's a lot of trial, but surprisingly little error, to be honest. The trick is to think with your tongue. With a spoonful of cumin poised over the beginnings of a sambar or a pinch of garam masala over stewing pasta, you've got to put your taste-buds together and check if it works. Your enthusiasm might lead you on, but your senses won't lie. You can figure out how to make what you'll like.

Cooking's a fascinating business. For a regular gourmet, it's all about tastes and possibilities. For a geek, there's a world of history and trivia to be had. Did you know that chicken was first bred for food in India? Its ancestor, the red jungle fowl, was plucked out of the wild and then plucked for dinner. Also, idli is Indonesian. The concept of steaming food in a box is borrowed. It might surprise you to know that no new plant has been cultivated in the last 2,000 years. A little reading up on food can get you really attached to the stove.

But beware, the kitchen is a territory. It cannot be encroached upon without proper authorisation. Wife, mother, grandmother, whoever, will not take kindly to Mr. Food enthusiast mucking about on their turf. Start on Sundays, tell them you're the comic relief in their genius art film. One fine afternoon, when they taste that snack you worked out, crisp and salty and delicate, and not say a word, it means you're in the club.

Ultimately, creativity in the kitchen is a Zen thing. You begin to conjure out-of-the-world dishes from innocuous ingredients, or make the simplest recipes taste divine. I once overheard my grandmother, a traditionalist, saying, “There's no set recipe for rasam, you know. You get some basics right, one ingredient less or more simply makes it another rasam. I've discovered at least 10 new varieties.” Go figure.

Keywords: culinary skills

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Anand VenkateswaranJune 19, 2012

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